Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi cautious on reform, despite landmark response to public opinion

Updated On: Oct 04, 2011

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has urged the international community to monitor Myanmar closely to see whether recent signs of possible reform are genuine.

Her comments come after President Thein Sein made a landmark decision last week, suspending work on a controversial China-backed dam project in response to public outcry. The move has been hailed as a sign that the new civilian government is listening to its people.

In a rare face-to-face interview with the BBC, Ms. Suu Kyi said she believed President Thein Sein supports reform, but she is not sure how far he is prepared to go.

"We are beginning to see the beginning of change," she said, "and by that, I mean that I believe that the president wants to institute reforms, but how far these reforms will be able to go and how effective these will be, that still waits, still needs to be seen."

She urged the international community to work together in dealing with Myanmar.

"I've always said that the more co-ordinated the efforts of the international community are, the better it will be for democracy in Burma.  If different countries are doing different things, then it detracts from the effectiveness of their actions."

Report: Aung San Suu Kyi cautious on Burma reform [BBC, 3 Oct 2011]

Separately, Ms. Suu Kyi warned that recent violence in Myanmar shows how difficult it will be to achieve unity and democracy in her country. She was speaking via video link with a small group at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa,

"I think we should all be concerned about hostilities breaking out all over the country," she explained, saying such violence underlines the challenge of bringing Myanmar's many ethnic groups together, "[but] we do intend to get to the position where we are a true union of hearts and minds."

Ms. Suu Kyi also told her South African audience that she was inspired by South Africa's defeat of apartheid.

"We are determined to make a success of our struggle for democracy," she said. "We are not just going to sit. We are going to move to get to where we want to go."

Report: Aung San Suu Kyi worried about violence in Myanmar [CBS/AP, 3 Oct 2011]

There have been recent signs that the new civilian-led Myanmar government is trying to soften its stance and improve its image at home and abroad. Some previously blocked websites have been made available, and there have been a number of meetings between the government and Ms. Suu Kyi. Foreign journalists have also been allowed in on official visas. The government has proposed a labour law that would allow trade unions to take industrial action, and may even soon release some political prisoners from jail.

Last week, President Thein Sein also ordered the suspension of work on a China-financed hydro-electric dam over public opposition to the project. The decision has been hailed as a landmark concession by the government.

The campaign against the construction of the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam brought together conservationists, scholars, and political activists including Ms. Suu Kyi.

Myitsone was being developed jointly by the state Myanmar Ministry of Electric Power, the privately-owned Asia World Company of Burma and the China Power Investment Corporation. Scheduled for completion in 2019, the dam would have created a reservoir of 766 square kilometres, an area slightly bigger than Singapore.

But the vast bulk of the electricity generated, reportedly as much as 90 percent, was destined for export to China. The dam had become a symbol for those fearing China's growing influence in Myanmar. Due to international sanctions preventing trade and investment from other countries, China has rapidly become Myanmar's chief business partner, seeking to take advantage of Myanmar's proximity and natural resources. However, many in Myanmar believe Chinese projects are being undertaken with zero transparency and little concern for their impact on local communities.

Myitsone is, or rather was, being built at the head of the Irrawaddy - the confluence of the Mali and N'Mai rivers - in Kachin state. The area is rich in biodiversity, and is also less than 100 kilometres from a tectonic fault line, raising protests over ecological impact and safety. The area is also occupied by the Kachin ethnic minority, and residents say they were forced from their homes without public consultation.

The Irrawaddy area also has strong cultural and historical importance for people in Myanmar, with many feeling the dam would do irreparable damage to the birthplace of the country.

Following the decision to suspend the project, President Thein Sein's government has pointed to the move as concrete evidence of its willingness to listen and to work in the interests of the people. But critics say the decision can easily be reversed - the Myitsone project has only been suspended, not cancelled.

Analysis: Burma dam: Why Myitsone plan is being halted [BBC, 30 Sep 2011]

Analysis: Reformists begin to make mark in Burma [Financial Times, 2 Oct 2011]

Analysis: Winds of change or just a smokescreen? [Bangkok Post, 2 Oct 2011]

The head of China Power Investment Corp., the company behind the dam, has hit out at the Myanmar government's decision. In an interview with Xinhua news agency, Lu Qizhou said the move was a surprise to him; his company only heard of the move through media reports, and they may now press legal claims against their partners in Myanmar.

But it is unclear how the company might take their case to court, given poor connections between the legal systems of both countries.

On Sunday, a spokesman for China's foreign ministry said Myanmar's government should protect the rights of Chinese companies there, highlighting the political nature of such a project. The critical comments suggest that the dam issue could affect other Chinese projects in Myanmar.

Report: Chinese Official Threatens Myanmar [Wall Street Journal, 4 Oct 2011]

Last week, Myanmar's Labour Minister U Aung Kyi said the government will cooperate with Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) if the party chooses to register in line with the country's constitution. He made the comments after a third round of talks with Ms. Suu Kyi.

The NLD’s registration as a political party lapsed after it boycotted the November 2010 elections, saying the vote was undemocratic. The new government is nominally civilian but critics say it remains dominated by the military, which has ruled since 1962. The NLD's current political activities in Myanmar are now technically illegal, but Ms. Suu Kyi has said her party has not ruled out registering for by-elections later this year.

Report: Government will work with legal NLD, says minister [Myanmar Times, 3 Oct 2011]

Finally, this week saw the release of the full theatrical trailer for director Luc Besson's film on the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, titled The Lady. The biopic stars Michelle Yeoh as Ms. Suu Kyi, while David Thewlis plays her husband.

The film tells the story of Ms. Suu Kyi, who was raised largely outside Myanmar and initially lived with her husband and sons in England. But in 1988, she returned home to care for her ailing mother as mass demonstrations were breaking out against military rule. As the daughter of Aung San, the country's martyred founding father, she was thrust into a leadership role. She led her party, the NLD, to victory in 1990 elections, but the then-military government refused to recognize the results. She spent much of the subsequent years under house arrest, but was released on 13 November last year.

The upcoming movie has proved controversial in Myanmar. Michelle Yeoh was barred from entering Myanmar earlier this year, allegedly over her role in the film.

Reports say the movie may see limited release before the end of the year to qualify for the Oscars, with a wider release planned for early 2012.

Report: Theatrical Trailer for Luc Besson’s THE LADY [Collider.com, 3 Oct 2011]

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